After Boudhanath stupa, I fold my 6ft 5in frame back into the front of the “taxi” and we begin our journey to Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. We begin to wind our way out of the city and into the country and the roads out here are atrocious. I have to put my hand against the handle above the door to stop my head from smashing into it as we bounce and rattle over huge potholes and crevices in the road surfaces. We thread our way carefully along a mud track that is more like a ridge that leads to a road that runs alongside the airport’s runway. Sadly, just a couple of weeks later comes the news that a plane flying in from Bangladesh will crash land on that runway, killing tens of people.
Bhkatapur lies only about 15 km from the outskirts of Kathmandu, and is an ancient Newa city. It is said that there are more temples per square foot in the town than anywhere else in Nepal, though a lot of them suffered damage in the 2015 earthquake. I’ve booked three nights, as it looks like there is a lot to do and see here, though many people simply take a day trip and return to Kathmandu in the evening. When entering, foreigners must pay a 1,500 rupee ($15) fee, with the money funding the repair and restoration of the damaged buildings. Show your passport and the fee is extended for seven days, which is useful for me because I’m going to Nagarkot after Bhaktapur and might come back through on the way back. You will be asked to show your ticket at various checkpoints around the city.
Fee paid, we enter the town and the driver heads towards my hotel, the Hotel Vintage Home. I chose this hotel because it looked to be just a few minutes’ walk from Durbar Square. The driver deposits me as close to the square as he can (it’s restricted to vehicles), and I set off down a street, trundling suitcase behind me. Thirty seconds later, I’m outside the hotel. Bhaktapur really is not as big a town as it seems.
It’s a really nice hotel, it turns out. Inside, the rooms are modern and stylish, and the staff are very friendly. I’m already impressed that they have a little cafe menu inside the reception, as I do love my coffee. When I get to the room (for an extra two pounds I have booked the deluxe room with a balcony, I’m overjoyed to find a kettle inside the room. I’ve missed being able to make myself a cup of coffee in the room in every place that I’ve been to. I make a mental note to find a shop from which to buy a jar of coffee. I step out onto the balcony and watch the street life below. I can just about make out the mountains in the distance (the sky has been very hazy the whole time I have been in Nepal), and I wonder if they are the Himalayas in any capacity. (Spoiler: they’re not.)
I head out for the afternoon. I’ve decided that I will save Durbar Square for another day. Suresh, the owner of the hotel, has pointed out Thaumadi Square and Dattatreya Square to me on the map, and I’ve read about Pottery Square. Since I have always wanted to try making pottery, I decide to leave that for another day too. I don’t want to end up seeing and doing everything on my first day.
I step out and head down to Durbar Square. It is now about 3 pm and still quite warm. Durbar Square is just a few seconds away. I hover around for a short while and decide to go left. I’m approached by tour guides immediately, all of whom want to escort me around Durbar Square. Not today. I’m just wandering and getting my bearings. One chap is particularly insistent, in a jovial way. I keep walking.
Roughly two minutes later I’m in Thaumadi Square, home to Nyatapola Temple, the tallest temple in the Kathmandu Valley. The square is wide and open, and tourists groups and Nepalis are milling around. I’m rather more impressed by this square than the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu and Nepal, and I immediately get my camera out and climb the steps to the top to take in the view. People are just hanging about at the top. Motorbikes zip in and out of the square. Across the square there is a small but bustling marketplace, and there is another temple to the east. There’s a lot going on.
I wander around the square, perusing the art and trinkets for sale, then I walk along a street to the east of the square lined with shops selling all manner of items, from fruit and veg to Indian sweets to T-shirts and shoes and slippers. I’m getting my bearings and taking it all in. It’s very different to Kathmandu, and that’s probably because it’s a smaller town and doesn’t seem to have suffered a lot of damage, even though the streets are still dusty and the roads pitted and broken. The Newari architecture is more prominent here, what with the carved wooden roofs and embellishments to the houses.
I head back towards Durbar Square. I remember a coffee shop near the hotel that had a small rooftop patio overlooking the square and I fancy some caffeine. As I’m walking towards it the jovial tour guide approaches me again. He hasn’t guided anyone today, he says. Am I going to let him go a day without working? he asks. Today, yes, I tell him. I joke back that I am also jobless and that I’m homeless, and I make a mental note to avoid this street in future.
I have a bit of a rest back at the hotel for an hour or two. I don’t want to see and do everything there is to do on my first day. By 6.30 pm it’s dark and I’m starting to feel hungry. Time to head out retrace my steps to Thaumadi Square. The streets are now quiet and dark. There are not a lot of lights on. I don’t see the tour guide, so I take the street quickly. There are a couple of small shops serving samosas and dhaal bhat, but they seem to be closing. Most of the tour groups have disappeared. It’s a jolting contrast.
When I get to the square there is a lot of activity going on. Bells are ringing and candles are burning and processions of people are walking through. I have no idea what is going on. It’s a bit of a cacophony. Bikes are zipping through. Bells are chiming. A few tourist stragglers are watching and taking photos. I wander about, not really knowing what’s happening and try to take some photos, but it’s so dark. It’s weird how dark it is and yet so many people are out and about doing something that seems so serious and spiritual.
I dive into a bar and eat on the balcony overlooking the square. Around 7 pm, everything stops. The bells fall silent. People pack up and close their shops and head home. The bikes stop zipping through the square. Everything is dark and quiet. There’s only myself and three other tourists in the bar. The Nepali guy running it sits and talks with me. He’s a very friendly guy. We talk about Korea and he tells me he went away to study English but came back to get married. He married a girl from his school (he’s 21) three years ago, because that’s just what you do. He’s got dreams of going to the States to work. He doesn’t love her. She was his friend. She was suitable as a wife. He married her. That’s just what you do in Nepal. Get married young and have your kids young. It seems a little sad to live life that way, just because it’s what you do, but it makes me realise how privileged I am and have been to be able to live my life that way I have wanted to.
I’m back at the hotel around 9 pm. Suresh sells me a beer. I sit on the sofa chatting with him. He’s playing music on YouTube on the TV in the reception area, so we talk about music. I tell him that I finally made the connection between the Janis Joplin murals and the song. He plays Kathmandu by Cat Stevens, which I’ve never heard before. It’s a nice song – acoustic and hippy-ish. When it’s done, autoplay comes on and more Cat Stevens plays. We keep chatting. My ears are taken by one song that’s playing, so I Shazam it. It’s called I Want to Live in a Wigwam and it’s about being a hippy and a free spirit. Something about it resonates. I mean, I don’t want to be a hippy (far from it), and I have no idea when the last time I went camping was, but something about it chimes. I add to to my playlist, and whenever I hear that song today, I’m immediately taken back to Bhaktapur.
by Cat Stevens, which I’ve never heard before. It’s a nice song – acoustic and hippy-ish. When it’s done, autoplay comes on and more Cat Stevens plays. We keep chatting. My ears are taken by one song that’s playing, so I Shazam it. It’s called I Want to Live in a Wigwam and it’s about being a hippy and a free spirit. Something about it resonates. I mean, I don’t want to be a hippy (far from it), and I have no idea when the last time I went camping was, but something about it chimes. I add to to my playlist, and whenever I hear that song today, I’m immediately taken back to Bhaktapur.